Maryann Cusimano Love is a professor of international relations in the politics department at Catholic University and a fellow at the school’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. She is the author of “Beyond Sovereignty.”
The first pope from the Americas will make his first visit to the United States next year, to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. Before millions of U.S. Catholics greet the man who seems to be revolutionizing their faith, let’s clear up some misconceptions about the new pontiff’s beliefs and impact.
1. Pope Francis’s critiques of capitalism are only his personal opinions.
Pope Francis is not shy in his economic teachings. His papal exhortation last year, “The Joy of the Gospel,” included the declarations: “No to an economy of exclusion . . . such an economy kills,” “No to the new idolatry of money” and “No to a financial system which rules rather than serves.” He was not speaking metaphorically. Pope Francis has launched initiatives to combat modern-day slavery and human trafficking, in which people die as part of the global economy.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has decried Francis’s stance as his personal opinions coming from Argentina; Rush Limbaugh has called the pope’s position “pure Marxism.” Others in the right wing have said the pope is well-intentioned but uninformed about capitalism.
Like it or not, these economic teachings are not unique to Pope Francis. They’re the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who was likewise pilloried by the powerful 2,000 years ago for telling the rich man to give everything he owned to the poor. Jesus urged us to put people before profits. Popes have long been critical of capitalism — from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” on the rights and duties of capital and labor, to Saint John Paul II’s critique of market “idolatry” and Pope Benedict XVI’s “Caritas in Veritate,” which teaches that the primary capital to be safeguarded is man.
2. Pope Francis is merely a “brand fixer” for the Catholic Church.
This year, Fortune magazine placed Pope Francis No. 1 on its list of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” Business books such as Jeffrey A. Krames’s “Lead With Humility: 12 Leadership Lessons From Pope Francis” praise his management and leadership skills. Some call him a “brand fixer” similar to American businessman C. Dean Metropoulos, who takes well-known, once-beloved but now tarnished brands such as Twinkies and Pabst Blue Ribbon and restores them to their core markets.
It is true that Pope Francis is a strong manager and a modernizer, and that he has boosted public perceptions of the Catholic Church. He’s reformed the byzantine Vatican bank and has forced out Germany’s “Bishop of Bling.” He avoids fancy clothes, cars and papal palaces, and is promoting bishops who also live humbly.
At meetings in Rome recently, I was invited to stay in the Santa Marta guest house, the pope’s home. As a political scientist in Washington for more than two decades, I’ve seen my share of world leaders smile for the cameras. I’ve never seen a leader of 1.2 billion people grab his own plate and fill it with grub in the cafeteria line daily. He sits with the secretaries, laughs a lot, and talks with the desk clerk, the cleaning lady and the security guard when there are no cameras around. If this is a PR stunt, he’s doing it wrong.
3. Pope Francis is concerned about poverty, not peace.
Polish Pope Saint John Paul II helped end the Cold War. Saint John XXIII helped the United States and the Soviet Union resolve the Cuban missile crisis without unleashing nuclear war. Pope Francis is often seen as more focused on reducing poverty than on building peace, but this is a misreading of his teaching. Media coverage missed that the pope’s “Joy of the Gospel” exhortation laid out his peace plan. It calls for dialogue within society and among states, with other faiths, and with reason and science, and urges the building of peace through reconciliation. Peace-building is “people-building,” Pope Francis tells us, and every person is called to be a peacemaker.
4. Pope Francis will allow women to lead in the church.
Women already lead in the Catholic Church. As a pastor, Francis understands a basic demographic fact: Women are more religious than men — whether the measure of religion is belief in God, membership in a faith community, attendance at religious services, personal religious practices, raising children within a faith community or keeping religious traditions alive in families. They serve in leadership positions in Catholic health care, schools, universities, parishes and dioceses, and as chief executives of organizations such as Catholic Relief Services. Pope Francis has sharply criticized clericalism, decrying “little monster” priests who hold themselves superior and view the church as their property, while calling for greater integration of women into the church.
Yet few women serve in Vatican positions — such as the special commission on marriage — and no women are ordained priests. With the decline in the number of ordained priests, the church increasingly relies on women and lay people to lead its organizations. But Pope Francis is likely to disappoint both those seeking women’s ordination and those seeking to block women from serving in senior positions in the Vatican. He has shown a willingness to appoint lay people, including women, to senior posts. But on women’s ordination, he has said his predecessors have spoken and “that door is closed” — while also indicating that the bishops are not willing to reexamine the issue.
5. Pope Francis will allow Catholics to divorce.
Catholics already divorce; the debate is over what to do about this. Current church policy is one strike and you’re out: If a first marriage ends in divorce, Catholics cannot remarry in the church without an annulment. Those who divorce and remarry without an annulment may be denied Communion. Annulments require the church to investigate whether the marriage was valid in the first place according to church law or whether there were flaws at the time the vows were taken. Differing fees, bureaucracy, wait times and a lack of understanding of the process mean that annulments are granted unevenly around the world, and few divorced Catholics seek them.
Some media reports have indicated, incorrectly, that the pope wants to make “Catholic divorces” easier to get. The pope wants those who had a wedding, but not a marriage in the sense of the church sacrament, to have due process, to be able to grow in their faith after a failed first marriage and not be excluded from their faith if they attempt to remarry. He has created a special commission to reform matrimonial processes, and he convened the Synod of Bishops on the Family last month, which will continue next year. Pope Francis wants the whole family at the Eucharistic table, but he is advancing Communion, not divorce.
Church leaders agree about the importance of marriage and family; the debate is over how best to support them.